Newbie Hikers: Big Bend National Park
Tricia: Let’s go! Let’s go hike. Don’t open that beer!
Tricia: I know you worked all day, but it is time to go on our walk!
Craig: Okkk, Let’s go.
It may sound like a crazy idea that an out-of-shape couple, older than 50, are planning to hike in the Chihuahuan desert and Chisos mountains of Big Bend National Park. To access some of the trails would require traveling on miles of unmaintained dirt roads, specifically in the desert. To hike on these trails require preparation and exercise. The mountain trails are challenging because of the changes in elevation. The desert trails are challenging because of the hot and dry climate. Office work, sitting on couches and living in the flatlands has not prepared us for this adventure.
Our prior hiking experiences were limited. We acknowledge that hiking half mile to two mile trails during an occasional vacation were not sufficient to prepare us physically or mentally. We also need to purchase the necessary supplies and equipment needed for hiking in the changing elevations of the mountains and hot, dry desert.
It’s 6 months prior to the trip and we are beginning to talk about traveling to Big Bend National Park. I am excited about traveling in our JEEP Wrangler and and am looking forward to driving off-road and hiking some of the trails. Tricia is also excited about the trip, but is more cautious and anxious, since the plan will involve off road travel on primitive dirt roads, and hikes on isolated trails in the desert. We discuss and decide to start walking every day up and down hills at our Texas hill country home.
It’s 3 months before the trip begins. A five day vacation is planned and scheduled, but we haven’t begun to seriously walk and exercise. Time is short. Our research about the Big Bend mountains and desert environment confirms that we should have started exercising weeks ago. Time to get busy. We start walking one mile per day, with plans to increase the distance to two miles or more.
Equipment & Supplies Preparation
Within 3 months of the 5-day trip, we begin compiling an equipment list needed to hike the mountains and desert in Big Bend. Since we are newbie hikers, a lot of research was needed. After multiple on-line store and storefront visits, questions and answers, we were prepared for the planned day hikes, and the potential to be injured and/or lost. This sounds hazardous for unexperienced hikers, but we chose easy and moderate hikes in the mountains and in the desert. Our equipment and supplies are categorized as hiking supplies and survival supplies.
Hiking supplies consists of what we need to safely and comfortably hike during the day.
Our gear consisted of the following:
- Camelbak hydro backback, 3 liter capacity
- Extra bottles water.
- Ascend hydro backpack, 2 liter capacity
- Fruit, granola, protein bar, trail mix
- Camera, accessories
Survival supplies consisted of what we needed if one of us was injured or lost. There are many good web sites and books that provide expert advise; consult these, purchase the necessary gear and learn how to use the gear. As an example, learn how to use the compass prior to the trip, well before you discover that you are lost. Although it is very unlikely that the survival gear would be needed, do not skip purchasing this gear.
There are many trails to hike and explore in Big Bend; rated easy, moderate and strenuous. The longest hike we planned was the Lost Mine Trail; 4.8 miles roundtrip and a 1200′ elevation change in the mountains. The hottest hike was Ernst Tinaja in the desert, at 102 degrees F. Here are the trails that we hiked over a period of three days:
- Lost Mine Trail: Moderate, mountains
- Window View Trail: Easy, mountains
- Ernst Tinaja Trail: Easy, desert
- Sam Nail RanchTrail: Easy, desert oasis
- Hot Spring Trail: Easy, desert
Details of these and other trails can be found in Laurence Parent’s book titled Hiking Big Bend National Park.
Lost Mine Trail
The lost mine trail was the most strenuous hike for us; rated as moderate in the guides we found. Our preparation proved to be sufficient to tackle this scenic mountain trail. Per advise and information researched, we started hiking this trail by 6:30am and easily finished by 11:00am; avoiding the heat of the afternoon, but having time to pause often, view and photograph the scenery. As described above, we did see more than one group not prepared to hike this 4.8 mile trail. The issues; not enough water, hiking in street shoes or flip flops, no sun screen, no supplies. Some people probably looked at us as being over prepared as we comfortably passed them with back backs, walking sticks, hats and comfortable shoes to hike up and down the mountain elevations.
Window View Trail
The Window View trail is a popular trail that starts near the Chisos Mountain Lodge. It is popular with many visitors as a result of the scenery and easy access. We hiked this trail on two occasions to capture the sunset over the mountains and desert.
While the Lost Mine Trail and Window View Trail are easy to access, the Ernst Tinaja Trail is more difficult to access. This trail requires driving approximately 4.5 miles from the Southern end of Old Ore Road, a primitive dirt road that is better suited to a high clearance, 4 wheel drive vehicle. Also, while rated easy, this 1.0 mile out and back trail could be rated as moderate if hiked later in the day, as this trail is in the desert. By the time we finishing this hike at 11:30am, the temperature was 102 degrees F.
Sam Nail Ranch
The Sam Nail Ranch Trail is a short hike off of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, ending in a shady oasis in the desert. It is a pleasant walk; it is only a cool, shaded loop trail for people, but it provides shelter, shade and water for various animals, birds and insects.
The hike to Hot Spring is about 0.5 miles and fairly level. We were disappointed to find the Hot Spring silted-in and shallow on the banks of the Rio Grande, but we did enjoy seeing the old stone buildings and pictographs along the trail. This was a hot hike at 1:30pm. An umbrella was a useful addition to our supplies.
Last Minute Thoughts!
During our hike on Lost Mine Trail, we saw more than one group and some individuals that were unsafe and uncomfortable due to not having enough water and/or physically tired. In one case, as Tricia and I were returning from the Lost Mine Trail summit, we approached a small group, all appeared winded and possibly dehydrated and I informed them of the uphill climb, and that they would need more water than the small water bottles they carried. They ignored my advise and continued uphill without the basic hiking gear or supplies.
Also, during our drive North on Old Ore Road and during our hike to and from Ernst Tinaja, we saw no one! I mention this to highlight once again that some trails are isolated and assistance may not be immediately available.
We were well prepared, but I wanted to share one last minute purchase that was made upon arrival at the Panther Junction Visitor Center; we purchased Death in Big Bend by Lawrence Parent. I mention this not to scare or discourage people from visiting Big Bend, but by reading some of the true life and death stories, it may prompt others to question their physical, mental and supply preparation.